This treatise is called “Shooting Bench Techniques”, and not “Benchrest Techniques”, because it’s intended for the average shooter who wants to take his Old Betsy out to the range and sight ‘er in.
It’s darned annoying when you are unable to shoot a decent group with your favourite sporter, worse still when you clean miss game more than once.
It’s sometimes hard to tell whether unexplained fliers, enlarged groups or a changed zero are caused by the gun or because you’re having a bad day.
Shooting over a bench looks easy, but proper technique is important if you want a valid diagnosis.
The following advice is the result of shooting off a bench for a good many decades, and I hope it will not only help you sight your gun in properly, but also allow you to determine any load or bedding problems that might be causing your point of impact to change.
Always start with a preliminary gun inspection. Check that the bore is clean and that action and scope mount screws are all tight. Then run your reloads through the gun to make sure they will all feed and chamber smoothly.
It is normal for a wood stock to shrink or swell depending upon the weather being hot and dry or cold and damp, which will affect the point of impact.
Only after you’ve carried out all these checks, is it time to go to the range and get down to brass tacks.
There is no substitute for shooting over a steady rest to verify your zero, using the same ammunition you will take hunting. It’s also a good idea to check how much or how little your zero changes with different loads you may intend using.
It’s essential to use a steady rest, either sand bags, a rifle rest adjustable for height or else something like the elongated bag I have been using lately which has a channel that grasps the rifle’s forend.
Whatever kind of rest you use, it should raise the sights to your natural eye level to enable you to maintain a relaxed, erect head position without straining.
Never make the mistake of resting the barrel directly against a hard surface, because it will make it shoot high. Avoid leaning heavily into the rifle; putting pressure against the forend when on a sandbag will affect forend pressure, changing point of impact from a normal unstressed hold.
Rifles with two-piece stocks - lever-actions, slide-actions, break-actions, light sporters without free-floating barrels, and heavy recoiling big-bore rifles should all have the forearm rested in the hand, supported by the front bag, to prevent them sliding from side to side.
If you are using two bags, first align the rifle by sliding it forth and back to form a groove in which the forend can slide during recoil. Once settled into the bags, check the sight alignment to ensure the crossires are level with the target. Slide the rear bag back and forth under the butt to ensure that the reticle in the scope moves only up and down rather than from side-to-side.
Rifles must be positioned on the bags far enough forward to prevent the front sling swivel from snagging on the front sandbag during recoil because it will cause fliers. Rest bolt-action rifles on the front bag with the forend supported immediately in front of the magazine box.
If you are sighting in with a new scope, first bore-sight using a collimator. If you don’t have one, remove the bolt and with the rifle held steady on the sandbags, align the bore with the target, and adjust the scope so that the reticle quarters the aiming mark or bullseye.
Then fire a shot at 25 yards to check point of impact. It should be somewhere on the paper, but you’ll have to adjust the windage and elevation to centre it. With a high velocity centrefire rifle I like to get the bullets striking about 1/2” low at 25 yds.
Next, move the target to 100 yds. and fire two shots to check the fine adjustment and repeat until the bullets are striking at the correct height.
For most varmint/predator rifles you should centre your group to land about 1-1/2 to 2 inches high at 100 yds. This will take advantage of the most practical trajectory out to the point blank range of the cartridge you are using.
Thus, the bullet will neither rise nor fall more than 2 inches between the muzzle and its maximum pointblank range - 250yds. for the 55gn/223 and 279yds. for the 55gn/.22-250.
If the rifle weighs less than 4.5kgs and has more recoil than a .22-250 Rem., don’t let it “free-recoil,” but grasp the front bag and forend together with your thumb and fingers. Support break-open, single-shot rifles with two-piece stocks in the same way, but holding them close to the receiver.
Always place a rear bag under the butt. Don’t squeeze the rear bag to control elevation because this causes the sand to loosen up and then settle down as the rifle recoils. Instead, settle the butt and rear bag down firmly on the bench and leave them alone.
Between shots, slide the rifle forward, then pull it back, so that it returns to the same firing position moving in the same direction as it does under recoil.
Light hunting rifles and all pumps, levers and semi-autos are sensitive to the manner in which they are supported on the bench. These rifles must be held firmly because they are easily pulled out of alignment as the shot is fired.
A target or varmint rifle weighing more than 4.54kgs may be held lightly, as long as the scope’s eye relief is long enough to ensure your eyebrow isn’t struck by the rim of the eyepiece during recoil. Whatever you do, however, make sure you do it the same way every time.
Light sporter-weight barrels heat up faster than heavy varmint or target ones. Hunting rifles should be shot slowly, not more than one shot per minute, leaving the action open between shots to hasten cooling.
Always let the barrel cool until it is just warm to the touch before continuing. With target or varmint rifles that are expected to maintain their point of impact as the barrel heats up more slowly, take about 2 minutes to fire a 3- shot group, under normal conditions. During the summer months it will take longer for the barrel to cool.
If you are hunting in open country, fire a few shots at longer ranges suited to the load and the game hunted. It is a good idea to sight in most high-velocity big-game rifles to be hitting 2-1/2” to 3” high at 100 yds. so that they zero at about 250 to 300 yds. The point blank range, the distance at which the bullet will neither rise or fall more than 4” will be somewhat farther.
It is important not to have unrealistic expectations about accuracy. Very few hunting rifles are capable of consistent one- minute grouping at 100 yds. straight out of the box with factory ammo. Under most circumstances you will do well to gain 1-1/2” groups with an average bolt-action rifle and five shots at 100 yds.
With the exception of the Browning BLR, traditional lever- action rifles seldom group better than 3 in. at 100 yds., even when scoped. Handloads can improve on that figure, but not by much. Marlin lever-action rifles are generally more accurate than the Winchester 94 type.
The Winchester 94 is very sensitive to the manner of support compared to the Marlin and seldom does much better than 3 to 4 inch groups at 100 yds. Most .30-30 and .45-70 Marlins can be depended upon to average groups of 2-1/2in. at 100 yds.
Handgun cartridges shot in leverguns seldom group better than 2 inches at 50yds and 4 to 5 inches at 100 yds. if even you can get them to shoot that well. They really are only short range pig and brush guns.
Typical semi-autos and pump-actions can be made to shoot nearly as well as bolt-actions. Some Browning BARs, Remington Model 7600 and 750s average 1-1/2” groups at 100yds. In the real world, however, any non-bolt-action rifle that averages under 2” with handloads is a keeper.
We all want to gain the best accuracy from our guns, but remember that most game is shot at ranges from 50 to 100yds, and that the average long shot is closer to 200 than 500yds.
Knowing this, it is just as well to know your own limitations, to stalk close and shoot straight.
This article was first published in the January 2014 issue of Sporting Shooter magazine.